Chef Derek Cheong serves up pizzas with Indian flavours, Latest Makan News - The New Paper

Chef Derek Cheong serves up pizzas with Indian flavours

MasterChef Singapore 2021 winner Derek Cheong remembers the moment he fell in love with Indian food. He was in his teens and was trying rasam, sambar and gulab jamun for the first time.

“The dishes had a strong punch of flavours; there was just so much complexity,” said the 26-year-old.

Food had always been a big part of Mr Cheong’s upbringing, given that his parents were hawkers who sold satay and yong tau foo.

But he insists that had little to do with him falling in love with the culinary arts and becoming a chef.

“My parents are typical Chinese people – they know only a few popular Indian dishes. They do not eat Indian food regularly. It’s just me, the unique one,” he told tabla!

When he was 18, Mr Cheong began learning to make pasta dishes and eggs benedict. Over time, he honed his cooking skills through YouTube clips and cookbooks.

In 2021, the then engineering student felt he was ready to test himself against the best when he signed up for MasterChef. During one of the rounds, he prepared Indian dishes for the judges.

“I made kulfi, the frozen Indian dessert, during one of the rounds,” he said. "For the final, I made a prawn appetiser, a duck main course and a dessert with pineapples.”

After winning the competition, Mr Cheong dropped out of Nanyang Technological University to pursue a culinary career. Now a familiar face in the food and beverage scene, he was soon approached with a business opportunity.

He was dining at a pizza restaurant when Mr Kelvin Sia, regional CEO of famous Korean pizza chain GoPizza, recognised him.

“He struck up a conversation with me and asked if I wanted to become a GoPizza franchisee,” said Mr Cheong.

“I wasn’t too interested at first, as I always saw myself as a fine dining chef. But when opportunity knocks at your door, you might as well take it up, right?”

Mr Cheong took a leap of faith, and set up a GoPizza stall at Pasir Ris Hawker Centre in March this year.

The stall, however, began to feature pizzas with an Indian twist.

“Instead of the usual pepperoni pizza, I went for chicken tikka pizza, palak paneer pizza, butter chicken pizza. These are now the signature menu items,” said Cheong, who is helped occasionally at the stall by his father Ernest.

There’s also a kofta pizza and mushroom masala pizza on offer, along with sides like chicken 65, mushroom pakoda and Madras curry wings.

“When people ask me why Indian flavours for pizza, I would say it’s because I love Indian food. I don’t see any other chefs doing this, and I am happy to say that my stall is the only place you can find such dishes in Singapore,” said Mr Cheong.

To cater to the traditionalists, there are also options such as ham and cheddar pizza and “Four Cheese Maniac” on the menu.

“I get a mix of both Indian and Chinese customers. It motivates me to be more creative, and this can take my dishes to the next level,” he said.

One of his customers, 31-year-old Beth who works in the education sector, said: “It’s my first time trying GoPizza and Derek nailed the dish. The Indian spices actually go well with the pizza.”

Another customer, self-employed Paramasivam, 53, said: “As an Indian, I need my spices for sure. The chicken tikka pizza is so nice. There is a right balance of spice and flavour to it.”

Aside from helming the pizza joint, Mr Cheong also has his fingers in other pies.

“I’ve launched an artisanal chocolate brand where chocolates are made using fungi and vegetables. I am currently a private F&B consultant as well,” he said.

Next up, he plans to serve rice bowls. “I’m planning to open a stall at Singapore Polytechnic to sell modern rice bowls. I have an undying thirst for knowledge, so I am continuously looking to expand my business and do something new every time."